By Janice Lane Palko
No one wants to hear from a physician that they or someone they love is experiencing a cognitive decline. Until recently, those patients were sent home with the general directives to eat right, exercise, and remain active and little else.
Now, those with mild cognitive disorders have more resources than ever with the expansion of the Brite Wellness Program. The program opened in November of 2016 and was developed and founded by Dr. James T. Becker, a professor of psychiatry, neurology, and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh; Dr. Oscar L. Lopez, director of Pitt’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center; and Dr. Elizabeth Skidmore, Associate Dean for Research the university’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and Professor of Occupational Therapy.
“We realized that there were many programs for those with more advanced Alzheimer’s and dementia,” said Dr. Lopez, “but nothing for those exhibiting mild to even moderate cognitive symptoms.” Dr. Lopez described examples of mild symptoms as things like forgetting to pay bills or taking medications.
Brite Wellness Program was modeled after a successful program in Spain that was created to respond to the demand of aging populations in Europe.
“The Spanish program began in 1994, so they were ahead of the U.S. in developing programs for those with mild cognitive issues,” said Dr. Lopez. Experts from Fundació ACE Barcelona Alzheimer Treatment and Research Center in Spain collaborated with Brite Wellness to bring their nonpharmacological programs that help to stimulate cognitive, behavioral, and physical functions to improve social and occupational functions to Pittsburgh. Grifols International also provided funding for Brite Wellness.
The innovative program incorporates music therapy, creative expression, movement/fitness and cognitive stimulation. Brite differs from other wellness programs in that it supports activities based on their beneficial effects on the brain. Members do not participate in a single class; rather, they engage in 3–4-hour sessions, encompassing all classes, three days each week.
“We have found that those with mild cognitive decline when they use a single program like dancing or music in isolation that there is no impact,” said Dr. Becker. “Everybody is different; there is no single recipe to help cognition. However, Brite Wellness offers a variety of activities that work together to strengthen weakness and challenge the brain in different ways.”
Dr. Becker also stressed another aspect of the program that may on the surface seem insignificant, but factors deeply in mental health and that is social interaction. “There’s time for members to socialize between classes, and that has proven to be crucial. Many people feel alone when they are dealing with cognitive issues, and through the program, they can connect with others and enjoy themselves at the same time.”
Those interested in participating in the Brite Wellness Program undergo an initial evaluation. Data collected during the assessment is used to craft a wellness profile focused on four areas: cognitive, emotional, physical, and social health. A patient baseline is established that can be used to help patients track their progress as they move through the program.
“Quantitatively, we can show that those participating in the program are holding their own,” said Dr. Becker.
When Brite Wellness debuted, it had one location in Oakland, since then that location has closed but three others have opened: Glenshaw Valley Presbyterian Church, Homewood Brushton YMCA, and their most recent one in Chicago.
“With the onset of COVID, things changed greatly,” said Paul McComb, Brite Wellness’s executive director. “Since the program couldn’t meet in-person, we quickly scrambled to move the program online.”
That proved to be a stroke of luck. “Since adding the online program, we’ve been able to reach more people,” said Mr. McComb, who emphasized that the online program is not only beneficial for individuals, but that it also is a great asset for senior facilities. “The increased foot-traffic into senior facilities for those utilizing the Brite Wellness Program is a real benefit for them as well.”
“The original Brite model was a place-based facility where our members would come three days a week. Research indicates the prevalence of subjective cognitive decline (SCD) is 1 in 9 adults. We knew if we were going to make a significant impact on the well-being of these individuals who have mild cognitive impairment, that we needed to make our programs available across the country. It was two years in the making and Brite is now the only program of its kind in the United States.” stated Dr. James T. Becker, Founder and CEO
To bring the Brite Wellness Program to a larger population, it has partnered with the Homewood-Brushton YMCA and expanded their renowned Lighthouse Project to include state-of-the-art High-Definition (HD) live broadcast and video production capabilities. “We record classes and add them to our on-demand catalog of programs, which can be accessed by individuals in their own home or at a senior facility,” said Mr. McComb. “We record between 6-9 classes per week, and we’ve recently rolled out the program in Chicago, and we hope through the uses of the internet, to be able to provide Brite Wellness throughout the country.”
Some may wonder if the online experience still provides that social connection that members find so beneficial, and the answer is yes. “We have a member experience specialist who provides live interaction, and the beauty of being online is that you can take Brite anywhere, even on vacation or if you miss a day, you can just log on and pick up where you left off,” said Mr. McComb.
Another benefit of Brite Wellness that may be overlooked is the benefits it provides to caregivers. “The nine-hours per week that a member is involved in the program provides time for caregivers to carve out time for them to tend to their own needs,” said Dr. Becker. “And not only that, but the caregiver’s quality of life is improved when they see that their loved one is excited to participate in Brite Wellness. That makes them feel better too.”
Brite Wellness offers a variety of membership levels and a one-week, free trial membership. “We are a nonprofit and aim to never turn anyone away because of financial hardship,” said Mr. McComb.
“With our program, we hope to provide physicians with another resource for aiding their patients with mild cognitive decline,” said Dr. Lopez.
“Our goal at Brite Wellness is to help people extend the period of highest quality of life and optimize their lives through physical, social, and cognitive functioning,” said Dr. Becker.
For more information on Brite Wellness Program, visit the website at: www.britewellness.org.